Tuesday 25 December 2007

Happy Christmas!

Season's greetings from the Slush Pile on Boracay Island, the Philippines!

Wednesday 5 December 2007

Yes It's You: Good News Strikes

It felt a little bit like winning Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.


When the moment came, it took me ages to process what was actually happening, Rejection having been my default setting for so long.

The phone rang and I took a message. The message was: YES.

Yes, I like your book.

Yes, I want to represent you.

Yes, it’s going to happen.


Come to think of it, that was David Almond’s inspirational message this past SCBWI Writer’s Day. “It happened to me, It’s going to happen to you.”

I got the call last week and I’m only blogging about it today because today, I had my first meeting with My Agent.

I tried to explain to the Husband what a different experience this meeting had been from a previous agent near-miss that had ended in disappointment. Was it the way this agent expressed an interest in my other work? Was it the fact that she urged me to chase her on the phone when I needed to follow something up? Was it – ? The Husband stopped me in mid whinge.
There’s no point looking back. The difference between then and now is this book. You have written another book.
And that’s the thing.

I’ve written another book. And it’s better than the previous one. Which was better than the one before.

So after more than 10 years, three novels and dozens of rejections, I’ve got an agent.

One can only get better at it.

Tuesday 4 December 2007

Everybody Wants Series Fiction for Younger Readers

If you are a loyal attendee of British SCBWI's Writer's Day as I am, two things about children's publishing become clear:

  1. What comes up ("Fantasy is hot at the moment" – 1990s), must go down ("My heart sinks when I see yet another Fantasy submission"- 2000s).
  2. Series fiction for younger readers is always in demand

So here are the editors who were on parade for 2007's Writers' Day panel:

I was particularly struck by what seemed like a new look Walker list – I recall Walker editorial director Gill Evans at Writer's Day 2006 talking up exciting changes to the Walker list and here it was. Among other things, Walker's Emma waved around some very nice looking new series for younger readers: Walker Stories – with three linked short stories of 600 words each for readers from six years old – and Racing Reads for seven to nine year olds – four linked stories of 2,000 words each, with the emphasis on retellings and traditional tales.

Emma told me it was harder to sell one-off chapter books for seven, eight, nine year olds though there was "a lot of scope" for mass market series (Walker's big hitters are Megan McDonald's Judy Moody and Anthony Horowitz's The Power of Five series). But take note:

We are not particularly looking for fairies, ponies, unicorns and mermaids

Having said that, the editors all declared that they were not averse to mixed genres: ie. Mermaid Detectives … Astronaut Dinosaurs …

Meanwhile, Egmont is so keen on series that they actually do the brainstorming for series ideas themselves, going to schools to "road-test" ideas and then commissioning authors on a flat-fee basis.

The writer is provided with a story bible (plot, style) … some people might say it isn't creative but one of our writer's has gone on to write a series for Walker!

The consensus seemed to be that series for seven-to-nines is a sure thing – that is, if you can come up with something that ticks the boxes – "original voice", "that reaches out and speaks to you", "linking with the curriculum – things that work in the classroom".

Luckily I had managed to catch a breakout session with Diana Kimpton, author of the popular Pony Mad Princess series, talking about how to write the darn things. Diana has very generously put some of her notes online and anyone with a hankering to try series fiction out can have a look. It might be instructive though to mention Diana's key message:

The most important part of creating a series of children's books is coming up with a terrific idea – something with instant child appeal and the possibility of loads of plots.


Monday 3 December 2007

‘Tell Me The Future’ Guardian Piece Leaves Out Publishers

Vint CerfThe Media Guardian asked Vint Cerf, the godfather of the internet, to guest edit the MediaGuardian.

Vint Cerf's editorial describes how traditional media has always been vulnerable to new technology:

It is not often that a technological innovation changes fundamentally the way people communicate. In the 15th century the printing press made it possible to distribute the written word. In the 19th century, the telegraph enabled rapid point-to-point communication over long distances. Then there was the telephone. And we're still coming to terms with the social effects of radio and television.

It takes decades if not generations to fully understand the impact of such inventions. We are barely two decades into the commercial availability of the internet, but it has already changed the world. It has fostered self-expression and freed information from the constraints of physical location, opening up the world's information to people everywhere.

For the MediaGuardian's opening piece: Tell Me the Future Cerf selected a panel of commentators who can best tell us where technology is going.

Cerf's choices included Chris de Wolf of MySpace, Chad Hurley of YouTube, Peter Norvig, director of Google Research, and Biz Stone of Twitter. The presence of these social networking luminaries comes as no surprise.

Unfortunately, it also comes as no surprise that none of the seven experts he picked to predict the future came from the publishing industry.

Does traditional publishing have nothing to contribute to a discussion about the future of media?

Thursday 29 November 2007

John Green's Advice to Writers (And Some Yada Yada)

So this is John Green's videoblog. If he appears to be talking to someone named Hank it's because ... oh heck, go read about it on his blog. So he will talk a bit about his parents bringing him a box of things from his childhood before he gets to the stuff about writing.

But it's cool. It's funny. We should all be more like John Green. But John Green also wins prizes for his books. He's cooler than us. Life is not fair.

Just so you know, John Green wrote Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines. And won big prizes. But he's more famous for his My Pants forum (as in...hey, see you in My Pants later)

Monday 26 November 2007

Who's Afraid of the World Wide Web - Blog Panel

My talk Who's Afraid of the World Wide Web for Writer's Day went on for so long that we didn't have time to interview a panel of SCBWI bloggers who would have shed light on life in the blogosphere.

The panel was meant to include Sue Eves, Anita Loughrey, Sarah McIntyre and Addy Farmer. I was also going to talk to the author Diana Kimpton about her work with Contact an Author and Wordpool.

To make up for blabbing too long, I'm going to do the panel right here at Notes From the Slush Pile. A blog tour ... except it's a blog panel.

blog panel

First up is Sue Eves, an actor, puppeteer and author of the picture book Hic!, who can tell you a thing or two about how to achieve the networking in social networking!
I joined myspace a year ago and facebook in June. The main reason I joined myspace was to research the children's book market. By adding global contacts focusing on children's authors, book publishers and literary agents, I soon had a small network of 85 'friends' across the globe from San Francisco to Perth. Read more
And here's Anita Loughrey, who has authored many teacher's resources and written articles for publications online and in print:
The worst thing about blogging is feeling like I am wasting time when I should be getting on with other things. The best bit about blogging is when someone leaves me a comment. It makes me feel really good knowing somebody has actually read what I’ve written and taken the time to write back to me. Read more
Uber-illustrator Sarah McIntyre keeps a fully-illustrated, (highly addictive if you love illustration) blog and set up a community blog for members of SCBWI over at LiveJournal (their current wheeze is a describe/draw your own mermaid self-portrait). Here's Sarah on why she blogs:
It's a blessing for the networking, the encouragement people have given me on my work, and the constant motivation to be doing something fresh. I've had commissions from people looking at my blog. And I've learned a great deal about comics and comic artists, since so many comics are only visible online, not in printed form. I like how reading comics online subverts publishers' ideas about what they think we'll read. The curse is that I can spend way too much time on it when I should be doing my work. And I sometimes worry about people nicking my stuff, and I try to label it to make it slightly more difficult. But that concern also motivates me to keep making fresh work. Read More
Addy Farmer has been blogging in the guise of a Science-Museum-mad eight-year-old boy named Wilf for more than two years now. The Wilf blog has fulfilled every blogger's fairy tale aspiration to have their blog discovered and published as a book! Addy's picture books Grandad's Bench (Walker) and Siddharth and Rinki (Tamarind Press) are out in August 2008, and a poem is appearing in Look Out! the Teachers Are Coming: Poems Chosen by Tony Bradman — and here, Addy explains how Wilf the blog led to Wilf the book:
I heard about a publisher called, 'The Friday Project' who publish blogs as books. They are medium sized and independent (bit like me) and importantly, their sales, marketing and distribution is handled by Macmillan. I submitted my blog to the commercial director, Scott Pack. He liked it and made suggestions for how it could be formatted which I liked. Basically, there is a 15,000 word story seamlessly blended with facts and inventions. After a year of slog I signed the contract and 'Wilf and the Big Cat' comes out in August 2008! Read More
Any questions? Go ahead, make our day!

Sunday 25 November 2007

Writer's Day : the Joy of Children's Writers

I’m sitting up in bed at my Bed and Breakfast in Winchester, a pillow on my lap to stop the laptop inflicting third degree burns on my knees.

Yesterday was Writer’s Day, British SCBWI’s yearly inspiration-fest. This is my fifth Writer’s Day and my friend Miriam and I have taken to staying at the same Bed and Breakfast every year. Jackie, our lovely B&B host, asked us how we’d been since the last time we’d stayed exactly a year before to attend Writer’s Day.

Why, looking back, it’s been a great writing year.
I’ve finished another novel. I’ve won a place in the SCBWI anthology Undiscovered Voices. I’ve attended every single event that SCBWI organized and learned so much about the children’s book trade. I now have a critique group of truly dedicated writers – we are so dedicated we are all planning to go away together for a long weekend critiquing and bonding!
This year, I was actually a speaker — though not as a writer but as a web obsessive compulsive (download the free handout I prepared earlier Who's Afraid of the World Wide Web: An Author's Survival Pack )Who would’ve thought that web addiction would lead to this?

This year we had a Night-Before-Writer’s Day critique session attended by 30 good writing folk. We split up into small groups, picture books and chapter books. In my own little group, we had a spider-coming-of-age story that would make a good novelty book (we imagined a spider toy on a silk ribbon attached to an elongated board book), a lyrical re-telling of an Aesope’s fable, a beautifully illustrated tale of a donkey on a journey, an edgy Cat/Arachnide fantasy which seemed better suited for a Varjak Paw style chapter book, an aeroplane story for Thomas the Tank Engine/Bob the Builder readers, and my own Theophilus Prowse, Head Louse text which I had re-written in rhyme.

There is a certain joy that seems to enthuse the children’s writer. And Writer’s Day is wonderful because en masse, that joy is a warm, embracing, amazing force. Fills you with hope, it does.

Through the years, faces have become familiar and interestingly many of the friends I met on Writer’s Day were folks I had first engaged with online. I did many double takes – “Is that you?” – it takes some getting used to, matching flesh and blood with individuals who had previously been words on a computer screen!

Looking back, I have to say that attending my very first of these conferences, with Geraldine McCaughrean as keynote, was a big turning point in my writing journey – and not just because of what I learned about the industry.

For the first time I realized that there were many other writers out there who shared my dream.

I also realized that a lot of them were very, very good – and I had to raise my game.

Clearly, this was going to be a long journey. But at least I was not alone.

Hello to the wonderful Writers' Day community and heartfelt thanks to the organizers for setting up one of the best days of my year

Friday 16 November 2007

How to End Your Novel

The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughreanWriting conferences and how-to-get-published guides constantly focus on the first chapter of a novel. When you sign up for a 15 minute critique at a writing workshop, the focus is inevitably on the first line, the first chapter, the first words of your novel. How do you hook that editor/agent with that irresistible beginning that makes it impossible to stop reading?

But what about the end?

Just this past Tuesday, I finally typed 'The End' to my YA novel, Ugly City. Woo hoo and all that.

It's the third time I've managed to finish a novel — and just like the other two, as it became clear that the book was coming to a close, I was stricken with a terrible, crippling feeling that the book was no good, that the words were pedestrian and the characters uninteresting and that I had thrown away precious hours, minutes, MONTHS better spent not neglecting my family.

It doesn't help that writing an ending doesn't have the fresh awakening of writing a beginning, or the thrill of building up to the climax of the story, or the wow of turning the corner to the denouvement.

Wither the end then?

I trawled through my favourite YA books, looking for a way. The greatest difficulty was that, Ugly City being a dystopian fantasy, there was a danger of too much explanation putting the reader to sleep.

In the end (pun unintended) it was Geraldine McCaughrean who gave me the answers. I read and re-read The White Darkness and Not the End of the World. Boy can that woman write. And there was method to her artistry.

She opens her final chapter with a unversal statement. Here's what she writes in Not the End of the World:
The planet tilts, like the eyeball of a sleeper waking. From Space, that is how large it all seems. But of course it is vast really — too vast to comprehend — too vast for the most catastrophic natural disaster to touch all of its blue-green sphere.
In The White Darkness, the last chapter begins like this:
What kind of word is 'big' to describe Antartica? To begin to capture anything here, 'big' would need twenty-seven syllables.

Words can't cope. The space between the letters ought to make them elastic enough, but they aren't. The tails under the g's and y's and q's and j's ought to help them grip, but they slide about helplessly. Cliffs are the length of counties. Icebergs are the size of cities. Prospects run as far as the sky. Parallel lines never meet because there's no disappearing point. Adjectives die on the wing the moment they see Antartica and plummet on to the Plateau. Words are no good.
The universal statement leads to a single kernel of truth. And that single kernel takes us to a short summary of key events that happened offstage while we were in the grip of the heroine's viewpoint and version of events. They are just brief one liners but they fill us in on what the heroine — what WE didn't know. (Note: I won't quote anymore to avoid spoiling the books for you)

Thus having enlightened us, McCaughrean gives us a final scene - and her final scenes, though as final as final can be, continue to thrust us forward, thrust us to the promise of a story that will not end, a life that will continue to be as eventful as ever — but without our participation.

And always, always, we are sorry that the story has come to an end. Because we have been so engaged in the characters that we are flabbergasted that they would have the temerity to leave us behind.

Oh, words can't cope.

I apologise heartily to Ms McCaughrean — I doubt she'll recognise this ... it's just my own interpretation, such is the nature of inspiration.

Thursday 15 November 2007

Egmont to Invade USA

Shaun the Sheep is published by EgmontNews just in:
EGMONT IS TO launch in the US in autumn 2009 with ambitions to become one of the top US children's publishers within five years. It is to set up an office in Manhattan in January, run by Douglas Pocock, currently Group Sales Director, who will become Executive Vice President of Egmont US.

Rob McMenemy, Senior Vice President and MD of Egmont UK, told PN: "This is something we have been planning for two years. It's a huge opportunity - it's the biggest English language publishing market and we're the only top ten children's publisher that isn't in it. The US children's market grew by 8% in 2007 and the same figure is predicted for 2008. I won't say it's easy over there - it has many of the problems that we do - but the growth is ahead of the UK and we're hoping to steal a share of what is an enormous market of some $5.5bn. You don't have to steal a huge share of that to make an impact."

The move represents a multi-million pound investment for the company whose UK book turnover is around £30m. Pocock will head up a team of seven and is currently recruiting. No details are being given on the number of titles yet, but McMenemy added: "We're not going to be a boutique publisher - we're looking at a list that reflects our ambition. The big lesson we've learnt from others who have opened in the US is that it's important to have a list that is generated in the US." Publishing News
O woe for the huddled masses of unpublished writers in the United Kingdom (like me). It's important to have a list that is generated in the US. Darn.

Authors or Agents? Picking the Shortest Queue

The Waiting Room on FacebookSo Sarah Megibow at the online friendly Nelson Literary Agency was carefully explaining manuscript submission rules to a Denver writer's conference when someone asked, "are those rules the same for all agents/editors?"
GULP! No, they aren’t. I’ve been thinking about that question a lot this month. There are so many rules and regulations that writers must feel overwhelmed. I mean, Nelson Agency only accepts email queries (no paper mail whatsoever), but other agents only want snail mail. Some agents want query letters and yet others want a query pitch and a synopsis. Others will want you to include the first ten pages of the work. Then there are the editors. Some will read unsolicited submissions and others won’t even look at them unless submitted by an agent. It’s enough to make any writer’s head spin. So while I don’t have a submission rule that’s true for all agents or editors, I can give this suggestion: Do your research online before submitting. Tips From the Slushpile, November 2007 issue
And sometimes online research doesn't do the trick.

If you checked out the website of Harry Potter publisher Bloomsbury, the submission guidelines are clear:
Unfortunately, due to the enormous volume of material sent in to our Children's department, Bloomsbury can no longer accept unsolicited children's manuscripts.
But last week soft-spoken Emma Matthewson, Deputy Editorial Director of Bloomsbury Children's Books told a group of SCBWI authors that yes, submissions will be read.

Cause for celebration? Weeeell. Editors speaking at writer's events (and I can claim to have attended quite a few of these) very kindly always say they will look at your manuscript. My theory is that confronted with the fresh-from-the-garret faces of suffering writers, editors feel they just have to be nice.

And yes, they really do read the manuscripts. Now before you print off another copy of your 1700 page wizard fantasy, beware.

I asked Emma if agents had to wait as long as authors for their submissions to be looked at. She said, no, though agents had to wait a few weeks, they pretty much jumped the queue of direct author submissions. The authors submitting directly have to wait months. And the sad number of books from the slush pile that make it to publication (I think Emma said they published four in the past five years) just isn't funny.

So which queue — Editors or Agents?

At the end of the day, it's only time.
Are you a facebooker? Join our group The Waiting Room - for all writers and illustrators who are waiting, waiting, waiting for that call from a publisher or agent. Published people are welcome to join and mock. But please no spitting.

Monday 12 November 2007

This Blog Can Be Read by Junior High People

Here's a fun widget I found while procrastinating! So this blog apparently uses a junior high vocabulary. Neat!

Junior High

I thought it would be fun to check out how my friends' blogs would rate.

Here's the wonderful fiction blog Wilf's World - told in the voice of an eight year old boy who would like to be Buzz Lightyear:

cash advance

Here's Anita's blog on writing and getting published:

cash advance

Here's Absolute Vanilla's witterings and warblings:

cash advance

Hmm. All these college level vocabularies were giving me an inferiority complex so I inputted my role-model-author/blogger/all-around-genius-on-the-internet Scott Westerfeld's blog and this is what he got:

cash advance

Which just goes to show ... you may be vocabularily challenged and still cool.

Wednesday 7 November 2007

He Giveth Then He Taketh Away - Prince Sues HIs Fans

One moment he is staging 21 amazing nights of affordable concerts at London's O2Arena, giving away his CD to concertgoers and with copies of the Mail On Sunday.

The next he is threatening to sue his biggest fans for breach of copyright.
His lawyers have forced his three biggest internet fansites to remove all photographs, images, lyrics, album covers and anything linked to the artist's likeness. A legal letter asks the fansites to provide "substantive details of the means by which you propose to compensate our clients [Paisley Park Entertainment Group, NPG Records and AEG] for damages".
The cease and desist notice went as far as calling for fans to take down pictures of their Prince tatoos and Prince-inspired licence plates.

Now like anybody who was a young person in the eighties, Prince is part of the sountrack of my youth - but this just goes against the grain of the social web.

The new reality of the social web is giving artists and authors headaches galore across the world

What is fair use? What is theft? Should an author's work be digitised forever and ever thus blurring the any boundaries in terms of rights?

Fans on social sites play a massive role in the virus-like word-of-mouth relay of good books and music. In the field of YA fiction where readers are particularly skilled, fans produce videos, music, even countdown counters in honour of their favourite authors.

Here's a countdown widget (right) that a fan created for Scott Westerfeld's new book, Extras.

And here's a YouTube video in homage to The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

Should authors and artists resist such flashes of inspiration in the name of copyright?

Or would it save time to just shoot one's self in the foot?

Friday 2 November 2007

Let Them Print Money - Some Authors Have All the Luck (And Readers)

So maybe I will blog more if I go for brevity, the punchy thought, the poignant comment.

And maybe I'll get more of my novel written.

So here's a punchy piece from ShelfTalker, the Children's Bookseller blog over at Publisher's Weekly.

I propose a moment of silent sympathy for the writers of the world, in the face of what's been a rather humbling, reality-bending month in the world of children's book sales. First, J.K. Rowling witnesses (by proxy) the sale of more than 72 million copies of HP7 within the first 24 hours of its release. Last week Scholastic announced that their initial print run of 12 million copies doesn't look like it's quite going to cut the mustard, so they're headed back to press to print another two million. Ah, yes, business as usual. Just going to print another TWO MILLION books to satisfy American readers.
We can only dream.

Thursday 1 November 2007

Oh Richard and Judy!

Do you know, I'm being a very good novelist and working hard every spare minute of the day on the last five (!) chapters of Ugly City! That's why I've been a very, very bad blogger, with little to say and nothing to show ...

But just so you don't consign Notes from the Slush Pile to your must NOT read blogroll, here's a humble but very interesting post excerpting the latest Publishing News - about Richard and Judy's golden touch:

THERE HAS BEEN an instantaneous and dramatic effect on all the books featured by Richard and Judy on their children's books special, which aired last Thursday. “Sales have been going extremely well for all the titles, with a 250% average uplift across the board,” said Waterstone's Jon Howells. “The stand-outs for us have been Andrew Cope's Spy Dog [Puffin], which has seen an 800% increase, week on week, and Claire Freedman and Ben Cort's Aliens Love Underpants [Simon & Schuster] which has had a 370% increase - a four-figure number in sales terms - which is particularly impressive as it has been out for a while and been a consistent seller. It just proves how many new people the show brings in.”

At Borders, Children's Buyer Becky Stradwick was equally enthusiastic about the programme's impact. “It's been very significant so far, particularly for Aliens Love Underpants, which has crashed back into our Top Ten, and for Robert Muchamore's The Recruit [Hodder], Sophie McKenzie's Girl Missing [Simon & Schuster] Betty G Birney's The World According to Humphrey [Faber] and Derek Landy's Skulduggery Pleasant [HarperCollins]. It's proved that last year wasn't a flash in the pan and that Richard & Judy has a very consistent influence.”

While both Waterstone's and Borders have seen a marked upturn in sales, and will be promoting the R&J list right up to Christmas as part of their festive offering, the programme's effect seems to have been more muted in independents. “I think the programme is wonderful and popularises the act of reading,” says Joanna de Guia of Victoria Park Books in Hackney. “But we haven't seen a lot of movement, although Skulduggery Pleasant has definitely been affected positively.” At Tales on Moon Lane in Herne Hill, south London, Georgia Hanratty noted that “a few people did come in on Friday, asking for recommendations from the list, but we haven't seen a hugely noticeable increase in sales”.

Certainly, Simon & Schuster is celebrating. Nielsen figures revealed this week that Aliens Love Underpants is the number one best-selling picture book and the number ten best-selling paperback children's book, outselling the other titles among the R&J children's winners.

Does this mean that we wannabes should quit stalking our traditional targets - editors and agents - and head for Richard and Judy's? Ah the publishing life.

Saturday 13 October 2007

Harper Collins Launches a Virtual Slush Pile

Dig this from this week's Publishing News:

HARPERCOLLINS UK IS launching a new community site encouraging new writers to submit work, with the most popular titles being considered for publication. Authonomy.com is set to launch in early 2008, aimed at a UK audience, with the intention of expanding to other HarperCollins territories in future.

Aspiring writers can upload their work to the site, and other users will able to leave comments and recommendations for each work. Victoria Barnsley, Chief Executive and Publisher of HarperCollins UK, said: “Very often we hear from budding new authors who tell us their script was loved by their family, book group or wide circle of friends. Authonomy™ is an opportunity for these authors to woo a large audience, get an army of support behind them, and really test whether their work has got what it takes to make it.”

Thursday 27 September 2007

I'm Going to be a Writer's Day Speaker

Head's up. I'm going to be speaking on everything to do with writing and the internet on Writer's Day 24 November 2007

They want me to share my scintillating know-how about the uses of technology and social networking.

Hmm. Perhaps they haven't seen this youtube video of me at work.

(With thanks to Lisa Yee who was blogging about her bad technology day!)

Tuesday 21 August 2007

Siobhan Dowd

I was so, so sad to learn from a friend that Siobhan Dowd, author of A Swift Pure Cry and The London Eye Mystery has died.

I was at the London Book Fair when Siobhan appeared at one of PEN’s writing masterclasses. She stood on the stage and gave a deep sigh. Only recently, she said, she had been in the audience of aspiring writers at one of these masterclasses. She couldn’t believe that she was on the stage talking about her book. But when I read her book I realised she was not just a fellow traveller on the thorny path to publication - the emotional honesty and simple beauty of her prose revealed a massive talent.

A few months ago, I asked my husband to read my YA novel but he was reluctant, never having read YA, he didn’t know what standard I was aspiring to. I gave him A Swift Pure Cry. That’s the standard, I said.

A Swift Pure Cry is a beautiful novel with heartrendingly believable characters – from motherless Shell who resorts to shoplifting when she realises she needs her first bra to the alcoholic father who copes by sending the children to pick up the stones in the field.

I do not know Siobhan, but after reading A Swift Pure Cry, I felt like Siobhan knew me.

I grieve for this wonderful writer and, selfishly, I grieve for the books we will not be reading as a result of her death.

Wednesday 27 June 2007

This blog is rated R!

Online Dating

I couldn't help myself. When I saw it on Justine Larbalastiere's blog, I had to go see how Notes from the Slushpile would rate. Apparently, my writings about trying to get published in the children's sector is too lascivious for some.

The rating was determined by the presence of the following words:

death (4x) sexy (3x) pain (2x) hell (1x)


Saturday 9 June 2007

Lee Weatherly's Tips on How to Write a Synopsis

… I hate writing synopses because they are much more difficult to write than the novel ever was. It's not easy distilling 100,000-odd words into a few pages.

Author Lee Weatherly takes a completely opposite view.

"Hand on heart, they are really not that hard," she says.

And yet writing synopses is described by many writers is one of the most excruciating aspects to selling a manuscript.
What is it about this particular piece of writing that brings out more moans and groans from writers than a roomful of sixth graders getting a surprise math test?
Writers fear the act of writing synopsis because they cannot see themselves squeezing the best of their narratives into a few paragraphs.

But this is a misunderstanding of what synopses are for, says Weatherly. "The agent (or editor) does not want nearly as much information as we think they want. To write a good synopsis, you have to understand what it is the agent wants from the synopsis … don't lose sleep over it. At the end of the day it is just part of the package."

What does the agent want?

We must view the synopsis from the point of view of the agent, says Weatherly, who has worked for an agency as a slush pile reader. "The synopsis is not the place for stylistic writing, it is a functional document."

Agents are unlikely to read the synopsis unless they like the writing. If the sample chapters pass muster, they turn to the synopsis to find out if:

  • the story hangs together

  • there is a story arc
The synopsis must be a user-friendly document (so user friendly "you (the agent) can just glance through it and join your friend at the pub")

  • The header must have all the information the agent needs – the author's name, the number of words, contact details, genre

  • It must be easy to read: lots of white space with a readable font (as opposed to long blocks of text and tiny font sizes)

  • They want to get a clear sense of the plot main moments: how you set-up the situation > the inciting event > the high point > rug-pulling moment > climax >resolution

  • They want to know the ending

  • Focus on the action but give the agent a clue of the emotional threads

  • Don't hold back secrets

  • Is it hard to read? "This makes agents sound precious but keep in mind all the manuscripts they have to go through … you must make their life as easy as possible"

A Synopsis can expose weaknesses in your narrative

"If your synopsis is 14 pages long, (the agent) might assume that the story is over written … which is not fair because the synopsis is not the story."

And yet many problem areas do reveal themselves. The synopsis must highlight key plot turning points — the "cause and effect that drives a story forward" — and without the usual padding of words any weaknesses are easy to spot.

"If you have a problem," says Lee, "it is really going to show."

Lee Weatherly (Missing Abby, Child X) spoke to the British SCBWI Professional Series on 24 May 2007.

Friday 1 June 2007

The Sting in Nice Rejections

Rating the quality of the rejections may help salve the wound.

The nice ones, the ones that compliment your writing, must mean the manuscript was almost good enough - or maybe, the manuscript was good enough but it was not right for the agent at the time, or maybe the agent liked you, really liked you, but it wasn't the sort of manuscript they had been successful in selling in the past.

You feel better analysing the rejections but don't forget: it's just guess work. It ain't true.

One day, a friend showed me a rejection letter that had given him hope. It said his book was excellent but that the agent didn't feel passionate enough about it to take it out to the market. It was a rejection, but it was encouraging.

The problem was, it was worded exactly in the same way as a rejection I'd received from the same agent.

Comes author Lee Weatherly (Missing Abby, Child X) at her recent SCBWI talk in London. Lee revealed that she used to read the slush pile at David Higham Associates and send out the rejections. She said she was given four letter templates to choose from that ranged in tone from negative to very enthusiastic.

So those rejection letters? They're not personal.

Editorialanonymous (my new must-read after Miss Snark retired) does us a favour with this list of eight things you should know about rejections. The most important thing of all is point six:

Most rejection letters mean nothing. Nothing. (Except that you can cross that publisher/agent off the list.) You need to internalize this fact however you can. Chant it in the bathtub. Write it backwards on your forehead. Listen to a tapeloop of it while you sleep. No matter what the editor/agent says, no matter what words they use, rejection letters mean nothing.

Saturday 19 May 2007

The Chelsea Flower Show, Stephen King and Shutting the Door

I'd like to share this piece about what writers have to do from my blog about the building of my shed.

My dear builders have left me for the Chelsea Flower Show. Here they be, trundling their specially designed Darmuid shed into the grounds for construction.

Rooms Outdoor goes to Chelsea Flower Show

Rooms Outdoor goes to Chelsea Flower Show

I miss 'em but I cheer them on. Go, guys. Show those gardeners a thing or two about shed building!

It took the Rooms Outdoor guys eight working days to build the shed. The whole process was a bit like Genesis (the bible chapter not the band)

Rooms Outdoor and Genesis

But then it rained for seven days and seven nights.

It was too wet to move my office out there though we did try.

George Washington Crossing the Delaware

Now the rain is over and my mind turns to the true purpose of the shed. Which brings to mind Stephen King, everyone's favourite horror writer.

Horror Author Stephen King

Here is Scary Steve's good advice to writers in his book On Writing:
You can read anywhere, almost, but when it comes to writing … most of us do our best in a place of our own. Until you get one, you'll find your new resolution to write a lot hard to take seriously.
But you don't just need a room of your own, says Scary Steve. "If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot, write a lot."

He then lists places where you can read — waiting rooms, theatre lobbies before the show, long and boring checkout lines, and "everyone's favourite, the john".

The john?

Baby reading newspaper on the toilet

But why read when there are so many other things you can do while sitting on the toilet!

Listen to your ipod

ipod and toilet paper holder


sudoku toilet paper

Play your uke.

ipod and toilet paper holder

Campaign against terrorism

Anti Osama Bin Laden Toilet Paper

Grate cheese

ipod and toilet paper holder

But I digress.

One location Scary Steve fails to list is Ikea — spiritual home of the flatpack and scene of many a friendly tête-à-tête about family-led design.

Ikea Edmonton opening chaos in 2005

I've been spending a lot of time at Ikea, well, spending a lot of money actually, sorting out furniture for the shed.

And Scary Steve is right. Long, boring queues are perfect for reading! I've finished three books so far (including King's book, On Writing).

As for writing a lot, Scary Steve says a writing room "only needs one thing: a door which you are willing to shut".
The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business; you have made a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.
How hard could that be?

I mean, Jack Nicholson managed to do it in The Shining.

The Shining: Jack Nicholson before.

And look where it got him!

The Shining: Jack Nicholson after.

Tuesday 1 May 2007

Theophilus Prowse, Head Louse

I don't usually, but I thought why not?
I'm currently doing a dummy for my picture book text, Theophilus Prowse, Head Louse about a girl with head lice and her mum's extreme delousing techniques. This is the Nit and Lice Vacuum Device.

Click on the image to view it large

Sunday 29 April 2007

Cliff McNish on School Visits

I must apologise for taking so much time off from posting but I've been building a shed at the bottom of my garden and blogging copiously about it. And, for lack of time, this piece will be true to the Notes in Notes from the Slushpile - just bullet points. I hope slushpilers will let me off this time!

Cliff McNish, personable author of The Doomspell Trilogy, kindly agreed to talk to the SCBWI Professional Series about school visits on 26 April. These are Cliff's pointers as well as some ideas from the audience; I also added some useful links at the bottom (such as the Society of Authors guidelines for school visits):

  • The toughest part of school visits is actually getting a booking. An online presence is a must.

  • Schools are interested in recommendations – if you have five people, you can be sure they will check out the first three — make sure recommendations are on your website or your publicity materials.

  • Post a leaflet to your target schools with key information about you, your books and what you can do for them. Follow this up with a letter addressed to the person in charge of school visits (Cliff started by getting the contact details of schools in his chosen target area from Schools Net and then phoning the school secretaries to obtain the names of people in charge of school visits (usually the librarian or the head of English).

  • You might do some trial runs for free at local schools but once you've committed to doing school visits, charge at least the Society of Author's recommended basic minimum of £300 — in addition to all travel expenses. A well known author of historical children's serials started by charging the minimum. But once she became more well known, higher demand and market forces allowed her to do less school visits while charging more.

  • Before you go:
    • Send an information leaflet to the school
    • Invoice them a week before your visit is scheduled
    • Cliff makes it clear that he expects the library to have at least one copy of each of his books "as a minimum standard"
    • It is okay to sell books. Ask the school, "When will I have the opportunity to sell my book?" The best time is usually at the end of a session when the children are enthused but of course this depends on the school — it's unlikely for kids at a poor inner city comprehensive to have available cash to buy books while a middle class independent schools might take care of invoicing the parents for books their children purchase.
    • if you have a quiet voice, make sure you ask for a microphone. Most schools have one.

  • Be flexible

  • A session should take from three-quarters of an hour to one hour per school group.

  • Audiences have ranged from 700 for a whole school to a maximum of 30 for a class "though I prefer less"

  • It is common for schools to provide a substitute teacher so that the main teacher can go off and do something else. Cliff makes a point of asking for the presence of the head of English or the key teacher involved with the class.

  • The best way to break the ice in unenthusiastic groups is to get the kids to chat in an informal way about what they like and dislike. Boys will talk about Anthony Horowitz, girls of a certain age will enthuse about Jacqueline Wilson. Pick something in their comfort zone to help them open up. "You are better off talking about East Enders (than The Secret Garden)!"

  • "If you are not an ex-teacher who is used to being in a school all day, you will find the experience exhausting at some deep physical level beyond warfare" — never go beyond three days a week doing school visits.

  • Schools will try to get you to do 10 sessions with a 10 minute break for lunch – don't do it. Never do more than three hours, doing more would be unfair to you.

  • Follow up: After you've visited the school, send them an email asking if they would be interested in having you again and if there are any schools they would like to pass you on to.

Really useful links:

Society of Authors Guidelines for School Visits

Cliff McNish's School Visit Page

How Search Engines Rank Web Pages

How Not to Treat Authors on a School Visit by Malorie Blackman (scroll down below the contact details)

Thursday 12 April 2007

The wrong end of the stick is the right one

The History BoysI’ve been listening to a CD of The History Boys, Alan Bennett’s brilliant play about a group of boys preparing for the Oxford entrance examinations. The headmaster, desperate for good results, hires spin-master Mr Irwin to help the boys stand out in the crowd.

Suddenly it’s not just the story the boys can tell, but how they tell it.
The wrong end of the stick is the right one. A question has a front door and a back door. Go in the back or, better still, the side.
Flee the crowd. Follow Orwell. Be perverse.
And since I mention Orwell, take Stalin. Generally agreed to be a monster and rightly, Sow dissent. Find something, anything, to say in his defence.
The advice struck a chord. Isn’t this what I’ve been trying to do, in the name of resisting cliché and sparking well, sparks, in my novel-writing? When my characters want to head in one direction, I do everything in my power to make their progress difficult. When one character expresses a conviction, I set another character to thwart him. When someone says no, another says yes.

Contrariness is just the thing to oil the engine of a plot. Sol Stein, in Solutions for Novelists: Secrets of a Master Editor, writes:
Successful writing is permeated with an adversarial spirit demonstrated in suspicion, opposition, confrontation, and refusal.
But he’s talking about craft. What about the whole submission process? Agents want quick sales, grabby manuscripts – why not give it to them? Surely, this is a technique that can also help sell novels.

“I get it,” says Rudge, the most working class of the History boys. “You want us to find an angle.”

An angle, a unique selling point, a hook. “It’s a performance,” says Irwin. “It’s entertainment. And if it isn’t, make it so.”

If you read through the blog of Miss Snark, the anonymous literary agent, who disguises her excellent advice with hard-hearted wit, you find the whinings of writers who are trying to find just the perfect angle to make that connection with an agent. Which chapter should I send? What should I say in the query letter? How should I package my manuscript? Etc etc etc.

Miss Snark’s response intermittently repeated throughout the blog is the best advice to all who are searching for that angle:

"Write well."

And how.

Thursday 29 March 2007

Who are we writing for? More stuff from the readers

Who are we writing for?

I'm always saying we writers must resist carmudgeonly declarations that kids these days
  • Don't read
  • Have short attention spans
  • Are dumbing down because of TV and technology
On the contrary, kids these days are amazing!

And we YA writers are so lucky. Because the people we are writing for have the means and talent to talk right back at us!

YA author Maureen Johnson was thrilled to discover her readers had created a homage using one of her blog posts as their script:

These guys really rock!

Thursday 22 March 2007

If only we could write half as creatively as kids use language

YA writers are constantly asking themselves who their readers are. This week, the Education Guardian helpfully published a glossary of words from the "MySpace generation" and it's a great eye-opener for the YA author.

I especially liked "404", as in "he’s got the 404" — from the internet error message. I just love the mind-blowing inventiveness of it all!

Last year, I posted a piece on slang, quoting Uglies author Scott Westerfield on teen readers:

When you are a teenager you are still in the act of acquiring language. One of the reasons I really like YA is that teenagers are more interested in voice than adults.
His comment woke me up to the fact that the YA reader is a tough act to follow:
Teenagers, . . . write more poetry per capita. They play more word games. They memorise more song lyrics. They like to spell things creatively. And a high percentage are in fact learning a language in school.
The blogging agent Kristin Nelson recently described learning the word 'EMO' from a 15 year old at a dinner party.
His best friend calls himself an "EMO."

First time I’d ever heard the word but I guess this is quite the rage at the moment in high schools (and yes, I did start feeling a little ancient). “Emo” is short for "emotionals." According to him (and yes, I understand that one source is hardly scientific), EMOs like to wear tight jeans (really straight leg), color their hair (but they don’t always have to), and like to listen to death metal or something that might be similar (that was a little fuzzy for me and the bands he named weren’t ones I recognized).

I felt like I had been given a peek into a secret world.
Then what do you know, Agent Kristin got a submission featuring — guess — EMOs! And when you google it, you find . . . well I'm not sure if this is some kind of 'mock-you-mentary (the actual film is on YouTube, generating a lot of hate mail from EMOs) and there's this too.

I’d never heard the word either, until I saw it in the Guardian's glossary ("The new goth. Likes depressing and angry music and has long black hair swept across the eyes").

Whatever the politics of EMOs, all I can think is . . . if only I could write half as creatively as kids use language — how daunting to serve such an audience!

And what a privilege!

'You're so Emo' art by Chris Marzuola

Monday 19 March 2007

Desperately Seeking Grabby

"I would have difficulty finding you a publisher in a market saturated with 'grabby' books."

Nice agent's rejection letter
Grabby. That's what they're looking for. If your manuscript is grabby, doors will open and slushpiles will wither to nothing.

Here's a rejection I got from an agent I really, really respect:
Well, the good news is that I thought your writing has developed most wonderfully. I enjoyed your book enormously — your characterisation is marvellous ...well done!

The sad news is that I don't feel that I can offer to represent you. For all the drama of the ending, your style and tone are gentle and subtle, and I worry that I would have difficulty finding you a publisher in a market saturated with 'grabby' kinds of books. I am truly sorry. I do love quiet, literary books but find them enormously hard to sell ...
Once I'd torn all my hair out, beat my chest, gnashed my teeth, and all the things authors do in the throes of adversity, I forced myself into "sense of proportion" mode.

What in the world does it mean, "grabby"?

I searched my bookshelves for the books that grabbed me and came up with a list:
  1. A grabby character has a striking feature, mannerism, characteristic that endears us and makes us want to know more about them. Like Gary Boone who can't help telling jokes in Dogs Don't Tell Jokes by Louis Sachar; or Bibi, the burka-clad little girl in Kabul whose dream is to represent Australia in the soccer World Cup in Boy Overboard by Morris Gleitzman; or 16-year-old Mattie Gokey who learns a word a day from the dictionary her mother left her in Northern Light (A Gathering Light to UK readers) by Jennifer Donnelly.

  2. A grabby plot has a fresh take on old story-lines — in Artemus Fowl by Eoin Colfer, a boy criminal sets out to find the leprechauns' pot of gold at the end of the rainbow ... and steal it; in the coming-of-age tale How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, a teenager comes of age in the midst of a war that results in the enemy occupation of modern England; in the teen fantasy The Secret Hour by Scott Westerfeld, kids born at midnight find that they have an extra hour at midnight that ordinary folk don't experience.

  3. A grabby setting places the characters in an extraordinary situation: in the Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, worlds that exist in parallel dimensions experience havoc when men discover they can cut their way in and out of them with a mystical knife; Uglies, Scott Westerfeld's version of dystopia has teenagers required to "turn pretty" (surgically) on their 16th birthday, thus dwelling on contemporary preoccupations on plastic surgery and self image; in Justine Larbalastier's Magic or Madness, a girl in Sidney goes out the back door of her grandmother's house and finds herself in New York.

Grabby is great. Grabby gets published. But I can see that there can only be more hurdles ahead.

After all, one agent's grabby might be another agent's idea of total, utter rubbish.

Saturday 17 March 2007

Authors' acknowledgements reflect grim reality not fashion

"There is more and more an atmosphere of carpentry that comes across in many creative writing schools."

Ian Jack, Granta Magazine, speaking on the Today show
Interesting short on the Today Programme this week :

Ian Jack, editor of literary magazine Granta, politely fulminated against a trend for writers to write pages and pages of acknowledgements in their books.

Today pitted Jack against the author Christopher Cook, who included four pages of acknowledgements in his collection of short stories. Jack, careful to declare Cook’s book "a fine collection" nevertheless rubbished his public display of gratitude:
His acknowledgements go on for four pages and include all kinds of all people Including Stacey at Caribou Coffee … Creative writing skill tutors, wonderful friends of all kinds …It’s like watching the end titles of a film.
The acknowledgements, he said, "devalues" an author’s work:
Something else is happening in America which is beginning to happen here more often too in which… the creative writing experience is a kind of workshop experience in which you are encouraged to read your work aloud and have it criticised by your colleagues. And there is more and more I think almost an atmosphere of carpentry that comes across in many creative writing schools and I think that kind of cooperative effort in writing which is not usually expected as a way to write is becoming more and more common.
Interestingly enough, I just spent the other night reading my work aloud to my critique group – who definitely deserve vociferous thanks if ever my book is published. My acknowledgements would definitely include my husband for all his support, and SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) which runs workshops and events that have helped me learn the craft … I could probably fill more than four pages if I thanked all the folks who’ve given me any input.

Ian Jack describes the acknowledgements phenomenon as if it is just another thing we in the UK are yet again picking up from the Americans. But there is more reality than fashion behind this trend.

The fact is, the publishing scene has changed beyond recognition. No longer can you expect to be taken under a gentle editor’s wing and nurtured. The market is so tough, the pool of people who imagine themselves authors so numerous, that you can’t take chances on talent shining from an imperfect manuscript, or an indulgent agent taking the time to cultivate you and your book into shining perfection. When you shove that manuscript package into the post box, it better be as good as it can get.

Hence the need for critique groups, writing school, workshops, book doctors etc. etc. etc.

Christopher Cook, in his defense against Jack’s withering scorn, pleaded guilty to honing his craft.
I don’t think it is being a craftsman like a carpenter. If a classical pianist admitted to having taken music lessons from fine teachers and other fine musicians then people wouldn’t bat an eye. Writing is an art like any other. It can be learned in a studio like any other.
To which Ian Jack went into full carmudgeonly mode: "Learning to write fiction is becoming more of a social accomplishment rather like water colour painting was in 1860 for certain kinds of young lady."

Yeah, right. But aren’t there easier ways of social climbing than spending month after lonely month writing a novel then allowing your critique group to slag it off?

Friday 2 March 2007

No talking teeth and vegetables

"My heart sinks when I get a manuscript featuring a dragon."

Agent at SCBWI UK's Agents Party
You heard it first here, folks. Please no more talking teeth. Or talking vegetables and rainbows for that matter. Sarah Molloy of A.M.Heath apparently received not one but two submissions last week on the subject.

At last night’s Agent’s Party hosted by SCBWI British Isles, 45 very well behaved members (the invite amusingly warned: “Please . . . make this an event that won't scare agents away so that we can have it again next year!”), one illustrator’s agent and three literary agents. Aside: If you think the warning is over the top, read this and think again!

What is probably most striking about finally sitting just a few feet away from these agents is how human they all were. None of them attempted to bite someone’s head off, they did not spit at us or stamp on our business cards and they seemed genuinely to want to meet a writer they could publish!

For your researching pleasure, here’s who was there:

Tamlyn Francis, illustrator agent
31 Eleanor Road
London E15 4AB
Tel 0845 050 7600

Sarah Molloy, literary agent
A. M. Heath & Co. Ltd.
6 Warwick Court, Holborn
London WC1R 5DJ
Tel +44 (0) 207 242 2811
Fax +44 (0) 207 242 2711

Caroline Sheldon, literary agent
Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency
Thorley Manor Farm, Thorley
Yarmouth, PO41 0SJ
Tel +44 (0) 1983 760205

Janice Swanson
Curtis Brown Ltd.
Haymarket House
28-29 Haymarket
London SW1Y 4SP
Tel +44 (0) 20 7393 4400
Fax +44 (0) 20 7393 4401
Email cb@curtisbrown.co.uk

Apart from the teeth warning, here are some interesting highlights:

- Agents do the whole submitting and waiting and waiting and waiting thing that we writers hate doing. Except it’s the main part of their job. Over and over and over again. And they get rejected too. Over and over again. And the editors still take their sweet time responding even when they're dealing with agents. One agent just got a response from an editor eight months after submitting the manuscript!

- Agents are looking for a new voice but they can’t tell you what that is until they see it. “Something I pick up and I get all spine-tingly and I want to read on. A page turner.”

- Apart from talking teeth, vegetables and rainbows, Agents are fed up with dragons. But they are persuadable if the writing is good. “My heart sinks when I get a manuscript featuring a dragon. Oh no, not another one! On the other hand, I am currently reading one that is un-put-downable. So it’s all in the writing.”

If there was just one thing one should come away with from the whole evening it has to be the point about a new voice. How do you find that voice? Can a fresh voice be learned?

The other day, pounding away on the computer, my words had begun to creak and turn all wooden and coated in hairy bits like the stuff one finds under the sofa. To freshen up I browsed my way to the list of YA books that have won honours from the Michael L. Printz Award (just the Oscar of YA writing in the States).

Amongst others (and I am only mentioning the ones I have read and in no particular order), there were Meg Rosoff (How I Live Now), Jennifer Donnelly (A Gathering Light), David Almond (Skellig), Jack Gantos (A Hole in My Life). I only had to rummage through my bookshelf and pick one of those books up to find out what a fresh, new voice sounds like.

Of course, the big problem is one’s voice has to be fresh and thrillingly new and therefore not at all like any of these great writers otherwise one might quite easily inadvertently and very dangerously commit plagiarism.

I rooted out How I Live Now, opened to the first page and hours later found myself sobbing over the final chapter and wishing that the book wouldn’t come to an end. Well. So that's it. That’s The Voice.

Now to get my pages to speak with it.

Tuesday 20 February 2007

The Scrotum, the Newbery Prize and the Librarian

"But you won’t find men’s genitalia in quality literature … at least not for children"

Miffed librarian
So have you heard about the scrotum, the Newbery Prize and the librarian?

Apparently some U.S. librarians are so offended by the word “scrotum” in the first few pages of Newbery winner The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron that they’ve decided to take it off their shelves. American message boards and blogs are buzzing alternately pro and con, with indignation and bile.

You can get a good flavour of the discussion from the comments on Fusenumber8’s blog titled Oh, Doggone It (the scrotum in question belongs to a dog).

YA author Scott Westerfield writes an amusing riposte then invites his readers to propose their "favourite dorky-dirty words".

Susan Patron who was "shocked and horrified" when the controversy reared its ugly head out of a New York Times article, wrote in Publishing News:
If I were a parent of a middle-grade child, I would want to make decisions about my child's reading myself—I'd be appalled that my school librarian had decided to take on the role of censor and deny my child access to a major award-winning book. And if I were a 10-year-old and learned that adults were worried that the current Newbery book was not appropriate for me, I'd figure out a way to get my mitts on it anyway
Patron should know. Being a librarian is her day job.

And here for your reading pleasure (or otherwise), a list of children’s books with the word scrotum in it.

Monday 15 January 2007

Who are we writing for?

Remember that thing I wrote about how authors have to keep up with their readers?

Wanna meet one of our readers? This kid is 14 years old, and he's got a lot more narrative sense than I ever had at that age. He makes a mean video too.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Share buttons bottom